Grieving Husband in Landmark Gay Marriage Case Carried Beloved's Ashes with Him for Supreme Court Arguments

James Obergefell was in tears as Justices heard his case

Photo: Courtesy James Obergefell

For the dozens who waited overnight for a seat inside, or who packed the stone steps to demonstrate outside, Tuesday’s arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court were historic – setting the stage for the last word on whether gay marriage is a constitutional right that individual states cannot choose to deny.

But for Jim Obergefell, the Cincinnati man for whom Obergefell v. Hodges is named, sitting anonymously in the courtroom – in front of the box reserved for reporters – the legal debate unfurling before him was intensely personal.

“For most of it, I felt like I was dreaming it, not really experiencing it,” Obergefell, 48, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.

“It wasn’t until … our attorney was responding to the state’s argument, when he mentioned my name and my husband’s name – that’s when I started to cry.”

Paulette Roberts, the minister who performed the July 11, 2013 marriage of Obergefell and her nephew, John Arthur, sat beside Obergefell – Roberts was one of the few who knew who he was and the heartbreak he felt.

“Paulette and I just grabbed hands and squeezed,” says Obergefell. “And that’s when it became real. That’s when I suddenly felt like I’m actually here in the United States Supreme Court.”

The unassuming and genial real-estate agent says few in the courtroom seemed to notice him. “And I know there’s no way the Justices knew I was there. But I found myself looking at Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite a bit,” he says, naming the three considered safe votes in favor of marriage equality.

On his finger, he twisted the two wedding bands – his and Arthur’s – that a jeweler friend fused together after Arthur’s death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) just three months after they married.

“On the inside, the jeweler cut a channel and that now holds some of John’s ashes,” Obergefell says.

“So John was with me today in my heart and in my thoughts and he was physically with me. It was a comfort to play with my ring in the courtroom and think about John.”

Courtesy James Obergefell

Married After 20 Years Together

Obergefell and Arthur met through a mutual friend in the fall of 1992 not long after Obergefell came out, and were in love by the time the champagne was uncorked that New Year’s Eve.

“I went to the New Year’s party at John’s house and never left,” Obergefell remembers. “I just fell in love with his wit, his charm, his generosity. He made me laugh and he was kind.”

The 1990s were a different era. “We never thought we would be able to marry in our lifetime,” Obergefell allows.

Poignantly, it was the Supreme Court decision in June 2013 that made the Ohio couple decide to make it official. Arthur was, by then, bedridden and deteriorating quickly.

“John was in hospice care, at home,” Obergefell recalls. “We knew the ruling in United States v. Windsor was coming out and we were just next to each other watching TV and when it was announced, I leaned over and hugged him and kissed him and said, ‘Let’s get married.’ ”

They had to fly aboard a medically equipped plane to Maryland to get legally married. Roberts performed the ceremony on the tarmac and the newlyweds jetted straight home to Cincinnati.

Whatever matrimonial joy wasn’t already tempered by Arthur’s failing health was tested just days later when a civil rights attorney pointed out that not only is gay marriage illegal in Ohio, but their native home state won’t even recognize their legal marriage in Maryland.

“He pulled out a blank death certificate and said, ‘You know, when John dies, the state of Ohio will say he’s single and your name won’t be there as a surviving spouse.’ That’s when John and I decided to file suit,” says Obergefell.

The lower court granted Obergefell and Arthur an injunction preemptively forcing Ohio to recognize their marriage on Arthur’s eventual death certificate.

In October 2013, “John died knowing we had this injunction recognizing our marriage. It was his way of protecting me and living up to his promises to me,” says Obergefell.

Courtesy James Obergefell

Champagne, again

Now, there is waiting.

Obergefell was capping the historic and emotional day with a quiet dinner in Washington, D.C., with his niece and two friends.

“We will be raising glasses of champagne in memory of John. We’ll toast him,” says Obergefell. “His approach to life was always, ‘I’m alive and breathing, so let’s have champagne!’ ”

The court’s nine Justices are not expected to announce a decision in the case before the end of June. And Obergefell can only plan to celebrate then, too.

“It was because of the Justices that John and I even married. It’s like they said two years ago, ‘You know what? John and Jim, you guys exist and your twenty years together mean something.’ I can’t think about the possibility of them now ruling against us; it’s too scary, too painful. For them to truly make us second-class citizens under the Constitution would be just heartbreaking.”

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